Forgetting About Last Night and Entering Must-Win Mode: Texas Rangers-St. Louis Cardinals World Series Game 4 Preview and Open Thread

Well, that didn't last long.

One day, the Texas Rangers and their fans are basking in the glow of a dramatic ninth-inning comeback win against the St. Louis Cardinals to tie the World Series at 1-1, with the next three games to be played at home in Arlington.

The next day, that same team and those same fans are licking their wounds following a 16-7 ass-kicking in Game 3, with 25-year-old Derek Holland and his Jekyll-and-Hyde routine on the mound in what has become a must-win Game 4.

The momentum's entirely back in the hands of the 10-time champion Cards, but there's still hope for the Rangers in this series, even though they're faced with the uphill battle of winning three of the next four games.

After all, the Dallas Mavericks just pulled off a similar feat in the NBA Finals. Down 15 points to the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and trailing 0-1 in the series, they rallied back to win 95-93 and even the series at 1-1. Then the Mavs lost an 88-86 heart-breaker at home in Game 3, but they would prevail in the next three games in a row to win the championship.

There's also the stat that refuses to die: Texas hasn't lost consecutive games since August 24 and 25 against Boston. And the Rangers have alternated wins and losses in their last eight games, so they should be due for a win, right? Right?

Need another reason to be optimistic? Even though last night's game felt worse, the Tampa Bay Rays -- led by 22-year-old rookie pitcher Matt Moore, who had just one career big-league start before the game -- unleashed a similar display of team dominance when they hammered Texas 9-0 in Arlington to take Game 1 of the ALDS. But, not only did the Rangers rebound to win the next three games, they defeated James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson -- one of the best trio of hurlers on any team.

The Rangers can do this, but three things must happen to ensure a victory tonight.

First and foremost, the entire club has to look at Game 3 as one collective fuck-up. While there are plenty of individuals at fault, including manager Ron Washington once again, this team can't win this evening if anyone's still cheesed-off that first base umpire and St. Louis native Ron Culpa (who's behind the plate tonight) blew a call or that Mike Napoli made a bad throw to home plate in the fourth inning.

Once you start feeling like you've been getting screwed by the umps or that one defensive miscue cost you a chance to win a 16-7 game, you're toast. Might as well cancel the trip back to St. Louis.

And before we grab our pitchforks and lynch Culpa, let's remember that he's the same ump who called Ian Kinsler safe after he stole second base in the ninth inning of Game 2 -- an extremely close play with much more at stake. Making calls like that at full speed isn't easy, and the wrong call there likely costs Texas a win, but the right call last night wouldn't have made a lick of difference.

While I understand why that four-run top of the fourth inning by the Cards is an easy place to play the blame game, the top of the fifth was actually the Rangers' most catastrophic half inning of the game, as I said in last night's open thread.

The Rangers had just rallied back from a 5-0 deficit in the bottom of the fourth with homers from Michael Young and Nelson Cruz to cut the lead to 5-3, and the heart of the Cards' lineup -- Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman -- was up next for the Cards.

Even though Scott Feldman had thrown just five pitches in relief of Matt Harrison to end the top half of the fourth, I hoped Alexi Ogando would be warming up because you can get into trouble in a hurry facing those three, not to mention that NLCS MVP David Freese and Yadier Molina were looming if anyone got on base.

Much like he did to start the fourth, Pujols led off the fifth with a single. Feldman then mostly concentrated on keeping the ball low to Holliday and Berkman, but eight of his 10 pitches to them were out of the strike zone. Both walked on five pitches. Only when the count reached 3-0 on Berkman did Mark Lowe, who hadn't thrown a pitch in the playoffs this year and gave up five runs in less than an inning in last year's World Series, start warming up in the bullpen.

But, like several other times in the postseason, Washington was too late. He needed someone ready to replace Feldman with the bases loaded, no outs and a red-hot Freese at the dish, but no one else was ready.

Feldman threw a great pitch to Freese, shattering his bat with a groundout to Adrian Beltre, but Pujols scored to give St. Louis a 6-3 lead, and Holliday and Berkman advanced to second and third on the play.

With Molina at the plate and one out, it made sense to pitch around him (meaning throwing four pitches in the dirt and hoping he swings at a couple) to face a lesser hitter (John Jay) and set up the double play. In fact, Wash had made a similar move in the infamous top of the fourth, choosing to intentionally walk Molina after Harrison fell behind him 2-0 while pitching around him. The situation was exactly the same: one out and runners on second and third.

Not only did Wash change his mind and decided to face Molina, but he kept Feldman out there, presumably because Lowe wasn't warmed up yet.

Molina made Texas pay big time, smashing a double down the third-base line and scoring both runners.

After managing to cut the lead to two, the Cards were back up by five. And that was before Pujols went berserk and clubbed three homers.

Which leads me to the second key to victory for Texas: Keep Pujols off balance.

I've already mentioned this before, and it's kinda pointing out the obvious after his historic night with the stick, but it bears repeating.

Sure, it's painful, but watch the pitches to Pujols on those three homers. They're all right there in his happy zone. Simply inexcusable location every time.

Holland and the Texas relievers must work the fringes of the strike zone against Pujols, and if they miss, give him first base and move on to the next hitter.

And there's the third key: The Dutch Oven. He's gotta give Texas at least five solid innings, hopefully six.

Holland can't be the pitcher he was in last year's World Series, the one who walked three batters and allowed three runs in zero innings of work in Game 1.

He's got to be the pitcher who dominated in the second half of the regular season this year, with a 9-1 record and 3.06 ERA.

Holland can't be the pitcher he was in the ALCS, the one who gave up 11 hits, four walks, seven runs and four homers in two starts against Detroit.

He's got to be the pitcher who earned a victory in Game 2 of the ALDS with one earned run allowed in 6 1/3 innings against Tampa Bay.

If Holland's Mr. Hyde, it's gonna be a long night for the Rangers. But if he somehow channels Dr. Jekyll, Texas can steal back the mojo in this series and tie this sucker up at two games apiece.

My heart tells me we'll see Jekyll, but my mind's convinced Hyde will rear his evil face.

It's only the most important game in franchise history, so no pressure.

Three more wins. Just three more wins.

Quick Hits

-- After getting burned by the defense at first base by Young and Nappy, Wash finally wised up and inserted Mitch Moreland into the lineup. He'll bat ninth, and Murphy and Napoli switch places at seventh and eighth to avoid having two-consecutive left-handers batting.

-- Much like Kyle Lohse, I don't view starter Edwin Jackson as a threat to the Rangers' ability to score a decent amount of runs tonight. The 28-year-old has bounced around several clubs already (Dodgers, Rays, Tigers, Diamondbacks and White Sox), posting a 60-60 record, 4.46 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in his nine seasons in the bigs. He also gave up four runs in just two innings of Game 6 of the NLCS, but he does have a 3.25 ERA in four career starts in Arlington.

-- Holland led the major leagues among pitchers who threw at least 1,000 fastballs this season with an average break on his fastball of 11 inches. Of course, Harrison's fourth on that list at 9.7 inches, so I'm not sure how much success that will translate into.

-- As I mentioned in my series preview, the Cards have the advantage with the DH in Arlington. So far, adding a DH has given Allen Craig two starts, including today, and Texas has countered with Yorvit Torrealba and Moreland. Yuk.

-- In case you're wondering, Wash has just one more year on his contract. If the Rangers throw up another stinker tonight, I can see Jon Daniels moving in another direction and cutting ties with him in the offseason.

-- In the Game 2 open thread, I suggested that the Rangers sign Pujols in the offseason. I'll have more after the series, but there are several reasons why this makes sense. It primarily would allow Texas to part ways with Hamilton when he becomes a free agent at the end of next season. Sure, Hamilton's been great here, but his injury history poses too much of a gamble for the kind of dough he'll be looking for. (Still unsure why he's batting third again tonight.)

-- One of the many things lost in last night's game was Beltre's 4-for-5 performance at the plate. Good to see him finally heating up again.

-- Ogando's probably the only reliever not available for tonight's game, so there's no excuse for Wash not to have guys warming and ready for key situations.

All right. This is it. Biggest game ever. Let's do this. Join me in the comments, won't you?